When Charles Portis published True Grit in 1968, the novel became a critically praised bestseller. Then a year later the movie, starring John Wayne, came out, and after that no one even remembered there was a book. If we know how 14-year-old Mattie Ross hired Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed U.S. marshal with a drinking problem, to hunt down the man who robbed and killed her father, it’s mostly because the movie never stops showing up on television. As a result, most of the pre-release chatter about the new Coen brothers version of True Grit, with Jeff Bridges as Rooster, continually calls it a remake of the John Wayne film. For Portis fans this is nothing short of a crime.
Criminal or not, there’s nothing unique going on here. Any time Hollywood takes a book and turns it into a successful movie, there’s every chance that the book, however good it may be, will be forgotten. For every To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone With the Wind, where the book and the movie are equally respected and neither trumps the other, there are five examples of movies that eclipse the books they came from. Of all the people who have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, how many have read the Daphne du Maurier novella on which the movie is based, much less recognize that in many ways the original is better? How many fans of Die Hard know it’s based on a good crime novel? Or Out of the Past, Vertigo, or Don’t Look Now (du Maurier again, this time a short story)? The explanation isn’t complicated: more people will go to see a movie on any given Wednesday afternoon than will read the book on which it’s based in a year. Almost always, the more successful the movie, the more forgotten the book. But understanding that situation is small consolation for authors or their admirers.
Readers who love Portis have it especially tough. To the extent that he’s known at all to the reading public, it’s as the author of True Grit—his one shot at the big time, and it backfires. This has only goaded his small but devoted band of readers to spread their gospel, and with good reason. His five novels are not hard to read or hard to find—it is a true credit to the publishing industry that someone, as a labor of love, is always republishing him. Maybe Roy Blount Jr. got closest to the truth of the matter when he said, “Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.”
Readers and critics don’t like putting “funny” and “important” in the same sentence when talking about a writer, as though there’s something vaguely disreputable about someone who can make you laugh. Or, to put it another way, they are not comfortable with the idea that someone who can make you laugh can also make you think. Would Mark Twain still enjoy his status as a great American writer if he had not inserted the issues of slavery and racism into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Just asking.
In the case of True Grit, the onus of humor is not even much of a problem. Which is to say, it’s not a comic novel but a novel that has comedy in it, and the funny stuff comes from the characters and the way they talk. Mattie Ross is an old woman when she sets down her adventures as a teenager in Arkansas and the Oklahoma territory, and there are numerous passages in her fusty, opinionated style that can make you smile and a handful that will have you laughing out loud. Writing about the ponies that her father had purchased right before he was killed, she admits that “it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?” If it were nothing else, True Grit would stand as an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism. From beginning to end, you never once doubt that this story is being told by a smart old spinster in the early part of the last century.
The novel outshines the 1969 movie at almost every turn. We remember that version because of John Wayne. Say what you like about his acting, it was the rare actor who could hold his or her own against Wayne onscreen. Poor Kim Darby as Mattie never had a chance. But the book is better balanced. Rooster may not think so at the outset, but Mattie always knows—and so do we—that she is every bit his equal. The admiration that grows between these two over the course of the story is genuine and affecting. And the devotion they feel for each other—demonstrated in actions, never words—is the most moving thing about this story. He saves her life; she pays to put a headstone on his grave. The Coen brothers’ version is a much better movie. They capture the raw surreality of the Arkansas frontier, and the acting is more of an ensemble work. Artists in their own right, they have been respectful but not slavish to Portis’s vision. But is this movie better than the book? That would be a very tall order.
Why quibble? True Grit is one of the great American novels, with two of the greatest characters in our literature and a story worthy of their greatness. It is not just a book you can read over and over. It’s a book you want to read over and over, and each time you’re surprised by how good it is. In every Portis novel, someone makes some kind of journey. His protagonists all have a little Don Quixote in them. They are at odds with the ordinary ways of making do, and they don’t care what the world thinks. In True Grit, these elements are the raw ingredients for one of the finer epic journeys in American literature. The Coen brothers, with their wry, dry-eyed take on all things American, are supremely equipped to bring Portis’s vision to the screen intact. But do yourself two favors: read the novel before you see the movie. You won’t regret it. As for the second favor: do not loan this book out. You’ll never see it again.